It took a three-hour special session, dozens of votes, two committee meetings and an extended debate on the meaning of "shall," but Virginia's lawmakers managed Tuesday to undo their mistaken revival of a centuries-old right granting employees a "day of rest" on the weekends.
Nearly two-thirds of the state's 140 lawmakers trekked back to the Capitol for the rare, mid-July meeting of the General Assembly. Their goal: to put Virginia's code back the way it was 14 days ago, when most of the state's businesses were exempt from the blue law.
But nothing stays simple for long when you assemble dozens of lawmakers and more than that number of lobbyists and lawyers in the same building.
"This was remedying a collective faux pas," said Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford). "While it's not pretty, it's for the most part effective."
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) called the year's second special session after a lawyer discovered late last month that efforts to repeal obsolete Sunday closing laws for stores had inadvertently led to the revival of a "day of rest" guarantee. Under that law, businesses would be liable to pay fines and to triple wages to employees forced to work on Saturday or Sunday.
As Tuesday's noontime session began, the remedy seemed to be Senate Bill 6001, which -- unlike the earlier legislation that contained the mistake -- was scrutinized for days by lawyers, lobbyists, lawmakers and the state's top corporate executives.
However, it was discarded by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee moments after its meeting was gaveled to order at 12:45 p.m. and replaced by Senate Bill 6002.
The committee adopted an amendment to SB 6002, took a break for 31 minutes and then removed that same amendment. The panel then adopted a new amendment that turned SB 6002 back into SB 6001.
Having done that, committee members adopted a third amendment that urges the state's court system to consider the new law in the same way it considered the old one.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), the Senate's floor leader, offered a simple explanation to the business lobbyists and reporters packed into the Capitol's ornate Old Senate Chambers:
"It's drawn more tightly from a syntax standpoint," he said.
The bill picked up speed after the unanimous vote in the Senate committee. The full Senate voted 36 to 0 to approve the bill, and it was on its way to the House of Delegates for approval.
Then the bill hit a snag in the House Commerce and Labor Committee.
Democrat Joseph P. Johnson Jr. (Washington) proposed that the word "shall" be added to the Senate amendment about how the courts consider the new law. Instead of "be considered applicable," the new amendment would read "shall be applicable."
The committee came close to approving Johnson's request before a delegate wondered, "Is there anyone in the audience from the attorney general's office?"
Moments later, the attorney general's chief counsel, Christopher Nolan, was standing before the committee, counseling caution. The use of the word "shall" could be seen as an improper infringement on the rights of the judicial branch, he said.
But then he added: "Whether it's 'shall be applicable,' or 'be applicable,' or 'shall be considered applicable,' I'm not sure at the end of the day that it's going to make a lot of difference."
Johnson's response: Oh, never mind. He withdrew his motion, and the bill sailed out of the committee, 15 to 0, at 2:16 p.m.
Business lobbyists, who had been pushing for the special session for nearly two weeks, began to breathe easier. "Relieved is the word," said Steve Haner, spokesman for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
But then, another snag.
More lawyers had been looking at the bill, announced House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), and had concluded that more change was needed.
"Mr. Speaker," Griffith asked, "is it more proper to discuss the amendment that's not yet before us or to discuss why we need an amendment?"
Before House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) could respond, the amendment appeared. It added the words "the meaning of" before the word "exemption."
"We want to be sure that we're sure that we're sure," said Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), a lawyer.
Back to the Senate for a final vote. When the Senate clerk informed senators of the House change, Chichester rolled his eyes and dropped his head onto his desk with an audible thud.
But the bill passed, 34 to 0, ending what observers believe is the shortest assembly session ever.
"Let's face it -- we were the laughingstock of the country," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax).
As Warner sat down just after 3 p.m. to sign the bill, he said under his breath: "I think I'll read it for myself this time." Then, referring to this year's extended debate on taxes, he added: "If only it had happened this quickly during the regular session."